In our office people are from different backgrounds, races, caste and culture. Yesterday I heard heated argument among a group of coworkers. The discussion was about terrorism, and one of the group was blaming a particular community. The members of this community felt bad and in turn they started on the other community, and thus the environment was charged. This was all happening at lunch time.

What should be done by the authority to check this and avoid any conflict later on. This type of feeling actually destroys the team sprit and is very dangerous to growth. How to avoid this in future and create a healthy environment for everyone, irrespective of cast, religion and race?

  • 2
    Does your office have policies and/or training on this? And is your environment such that people feel comfortable reporting this to either HR or their manager? – enderland Apr 30 '13 at 10:19
  • 15
    The golden rule is to never discuss politics or religion at the workplace. Ever. Not even on lunch break. – maple_shaft Apr 30 '13 at 12:28

As a manager I am pretty much against letting HR handle stuff like this. This is mainly because I've seen too many cases where HR, as outsiders being called in to solve an internal problem, ends up attracting too much attention with too little success. As such, my preference would almost always to be handle it internally.

If it were my team, I would call all of them into a meeting and put my foot down. Since I don't know the team (not even the size, which makes a difference), I don't have any specific suggestions but I would make sure that everybody leaves the room knowing any repeat of this behaviour would not be tolerated.

As for whether or not I would let the incident slide, I don't know. A lot is riding on hearsay since I wasn't around. In cases like this, where the penalties might be severe and the circumstances not entirely clear, punishing any party might backfire. This is especially true if its a big team and a lot of people got sucked into a single stupid moment.

By the way, all this only applies if your company doesn't have explicit procedures and policies regarding these incidents. If it does, I would suggest you get support from senior management before making any deviations.

  • I Wouldn't do that HR /IR are the correct people to do this the riot act needs to be read to your entire team in very blunt terms and its better if HR play the bad cop rather than you. – Neuro Apr 30 '13 at 16:43
  • 8
    Which "bad cop" would be more effective? A random officer from an outside department? Or your direct superior? Managing means providing leadership, you can't do that if you "delegate" something this important to an outsider. – Permas May 1 '13 at 4:55
  • 1
    Good answer since 'both parties' make essentially the same mistakes, and no one is to blame in particular (well, the childish "he started first" may come up but that's just an excuse to not address ones own behaviour). The "mistakes" being mainly: generalizing individual behaviour to group behaviour. We humans always do that and it never contributes. – Jan Doggen May 1 '13 at 10:22
  • +Permas You get the hr director to do it as for an individual team leader its well beyond his/her pay grade. – Neuro May 1 '13 at 12:40
  • +Permas You get the hr/ir director or equivalent) to do it for an individual team leader its well beyond his/her pay grade - the risk of failure is to high as its unlikely a random team leader would have the knowledge and skills to handle this both from a legal perspective. You want any lingering resentment after the telling off (or possibly sackings) to go to HR the team leader can then move things on as he/her wasn't the one doing the bollocking or if it came to it the firing. – Neuro May 1 '13 at 12:47

Step in. This is a case where leadership as opposed to management is important.

A couple different tacts:

  1. Don't be a bystander - if you're in any position of authority and you hear a discussion on racism get heated and charged, step in. Almost any form of leadership sending the message "this is not OK" is better than ignoring it. When the leadership ignores it, it becomes tacit approval.
  2. Diffuse with questions - discussions like this often get loaded when people stop asking and listening and start accusing. One way to diffuse the charged issue is to get the parties to start asking questions - "do you know that not everyone in X racial group is terrorist?", "how would you feel if someone called you a terrorist just because of your race?", "isn't there a better way to address our fear and concerns as a group?" - some of these may sound canned, so finding the way to ask it in your own words in a way they will hear it is really important.
  3. Start a team/department discussion - seriously, if people are freaking out, get them to address it in a corporate-appropriate manner. What's the actual fear? What can we do? Is this fear reasonable? Talking about contingency support, emergency response scenarios, and what to do at work in the event of a crisis is something a company really should talk about and it's a whole lot more productive than pointing fingers.
  4. Give pointed feedback in private - if you see a pattern and you see particular parties falling into that pattern - give feedback in private. Let them know that you see the behavior as racist, and racism is really not OK. An important part of current discrimination thinking is that it's not the victimized race that can stand up for this - if you see something that is racially offensive, you have every right to point it out - regardless of what race you are.

If this stuff isn't working, or you want a sanity check - do check with HR. Sometimes they know nuances and particular limitations to this sort of interaction that can be helpful for a manager to be aware of. But anything respectful and upholding of company values and local law is bound to be better than staying silent.

And, in my experience, waiting to put a nice package around it is less useful than nipping it in the bud. Speaking in generalities and hoping people catch on to the problem is less effective than redirecting a negative scenario on the spot.

Inform all parties involved that this is not an appropriate topic of discussion at the work place. Don't get into who started it or said what. Everyone is at fault since no one did the right thing and stopped the conversation before it went too far. No topic should ever cause this much hostility even if it is work-related. You have to demand that professional adults show restraint.

Establish consequences if this continues (I have no idea what would be considered legal or appropriate in your area.). As others suggested, you should have your HR department formalize this.

This depends a bit on the exact circumstances and your personal relationship with the team. If it's mainly one instigator, you need to take him aside: "Hey dude, that's entirely uncool. I know you are upset about what a bunch of whack jobs are doing there but that is clearly not the fault of anyone in our company. This discussion just makes everything worse and is helping no one. If you want to do something good, we can think about putting a benefit fundraiser together". Standard procedure: acknowledge the personal opinion and don't judge, clearly state that the behavior isn't acceptable, and then offer a distraction.

If it's already spreading and it's more of a group thing, than things are more difficult. Whenever you hear a discussion that's trending this way you need to step in right then and there: "Hi guys, I understand we are all upset and frustrated about this meaningless violence, but this is really not the time and place to discuss this and specifically not for blame games. We can't have this in our company. I'm wide open to any constructive suggestion of what positive things we can do for the victims. Come and see me if you want to chat about this".

I would only engage HR if the approaches above fail. HR will mainly go by the book and they don't know the players that well. Engaging HR will cover you legally and in terms of responsibility to the company, but it can also result in lasting relationship damage.

I don't think it is racist if you just cite statistics. It becomes racist if you transfer this to a level where you claim that everyone from that community is doing so. If this is not desired to discuss problematic topics, you have to tell your coworker not to do so. Every other suggestion is not possible because no one here knows exactly what your coworker said.

  • 1
    "Figures don't lie, but liars figure." It's possible to use available statistics in a racist way. It's also possible to draw unjustified conclusions from specifics. However, one problem is that the racist comments are disrupting work, and aside from anything else, that's a good reason to stop them. – David Thornley Oct 11 at 15:25
  • 1
    Okay, but how is that related to my comment. From OP we just know that one coworker blamed an unknown group for terrorism. That can be false or true, but not necessarily rascist. Your other example would also fit for coffee breaks :D The conclusion is that the question is just about unwanted behavior. – dgrat Oct 11 at 17:58
  • 1
    Very few statistics around human behaviour are "undeniable". Many rely on ambiguous definitions, built-in biases and cherry-picking to make a point. – Julia Hayward Oct 13 at 8:02
  • I accept this view, but this is a matter of another debate. – dgrat Oct 13 at 8:52

Based on the fact that you mention "caste" in your OP, my guess is you are local to India (the only country I am aware of where "caste" has meant something since the start of the 20th century). As a result, I will mention that I am North American and so what works for me might not work for you.

I would agree with a lot of the other answers that this is probably worth dealing with, although with one caveat: It depends on how otherwise friendly the people engaging in the argument are. Personally, I have these types of discussions fairly often with my friends, and sometimes they can get heated, but at the end we are all still friends and there is no hard feelings. At this point, I would get kind of upset if an outsider to my discussion came in and butted their nose in something that didn't concern them, and I would take it as this person just making trouble for me and my friends having whatever discussion we were having.

So if you choose to act on what you saw/heard, be prepared that you might be butting your nose somewhere it doesn't belong, and in the end the people having the discussion originally might be friends and you might be the one who ends up getting looked down on because of it. That said, if you could obviously see that someone was obviously very hurt because of it, then it might be more OK to do something about it.

EDIT: I just reread your OP and noticed you are these peoples' manager. In which case I would be extra careful about what you do; you don't want to be seen as the fun-killer in your team (and yes, sometimes these sorts of discussions can be considered as fun, and team-building exercises amongst your team; aggressively disagreeing with someone can produce respect if executed carefully). If you butt in here, you might be discouraging your team from becoming too friendly with each other, which might come back to bite you later in the form of reduced productivity; people who are friends are likely to work better together than people who are simply "co-workers".

protected by mcknz Oct 16 at 12:39

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.